by David R. Farnsworth, MA, LPC, NCC
In our society today, we are bombarded with images that define beauty. By comparing and contrasting ourselves with these images, we are faced with the realities that the majority of us do not match up. Our society so powerfully constructs these images of classical beauty that we don’t dare question them, or else we may be seen as outcasts. However, perhaps we should challenge these images. With enough challenge, we may actually come to reconstruct a new definition of beauty that allows for individual beauty of all kinds.
Making a quick jump from beauty to weight, this inevitably is the first comparison we make. Our self-perceptions of our weight immediately evokes some sort of emotional reaction which we often internalize from a statement of: “I’m not skinny enough” to “I am not good enough.” What powerfully daunting and self-torturous beliefs are those? The irony then becomes that we need to cope with these negative self-statements, and often we do so in our society with food.
So the society that constructs images of beauty that are unrealistic also reinforces the notion that food is a wonderful coping behavior when we feel bad. Put the two together and there is clearly a recipe for an unhealthy relationship with food. Aside from negative self-regard feelings, we experience many uncomfortable feelings on a daily basis and food is a wonderful coping mechanism, however, straining one’s relationship with food usually has health risks and leads to more dissatisfaction, even depression.
Food is fuel. Our bodies need it to survive. Yet, how much have we moved away from that core concept of food and have embraced it in more indulgent and emotional ways? Food breaks down in the human body chemically, similarly to substances, such as drugs and alcohol. More and more neuro-psychological research is showing that certain foods are triggering the “reward pathway” in the brain similarly to drugs and alcohol. There is growing evidence that that brownie we eat as “comfort” actually does have a physiological comforting effects on us.
Just like drug and alcohol abuse/addiction, food can easily take this place in our lives. And similarly to addiction treatment and psycho-education, food abuse and addiction has a similar way to tackle it. It is always a two-pronged approach. Far be it from me to insinuate that popular dieting programs are not doing a good job in helping people lose weight, still, I feel that they focus too much on only one of the prongs. They see it as a behavioral struggle that requires training and will power. I agree with this, but the second prong is quite psychological.
If losing weight and reevaluating our relationship with food was simply behavioral, it would be very simple, as it is quite easy to lay out a nutritional path for any human being. Science demonstrates what it takes to make us healthy and this knowledge is readily available. However, if food is a comfort, and you take this comfort away, then what will provide the comfort? We will always run back to that which comforts us. This lends to more powerful questions: Why do we need this comfort? What is going on that we need such physiological and psychological comfort through abusing food? This is often the question easily posed to an alcoholic or drug abuser. What is the food abuse doing for you? What need is it meeting that demands to be met? Until we can figure these questions out, the need to gravitate toward food abuse will be like gravity pulling us back.
While working on the answers to these questions, there is also the power of the behavioral approach and the concrete nutritional information. Both happening simultaneously is the key that many have found in losing weight. It is often said that “becoming healthy and losing weight truly requires a lifestyle change.” This lifestyle change also includes one’s psychological and emotional life too. We cannot compartmentalize these aspects of ourselves and wonder why behavioral change is not happening. The behaviors are always symptoms of deeper needs.